Can the police ever be friends to sex workers?

Former New Zealand Police Area Commander Jason Hewett talks about why laws decriminalising sex work in New Zealand have improved the rights of sex workers.

by Fraser Crichton

“We don’t police prostitution in New Zealand. We don’t police mechanics, or builders or plumbers. Prostitution is a lawful activity. We have much more important things we need to be doing to keep our community free from harm.” — Jason Hewett, New Zealand Police

Jason Hewett is the former New Zealand Police Area Commander for Counties Manukau West. From 2012, he worked for five years in Mangere and Otahuhu in South Auckland. Hewett’s first experience of not ‘policing’ sex work came in 2012. Under New Zealand’s 2003 Prostitution Reform Act indoor and outdoor sex work is decriminalised and street based workers can work without restriction or zoning. This legislation was first tested in Hewett’s patch when a small but vocal resident’s group clashed with outdoor sex workers working on Hunters Corner in Counties Manukau West.

Former New Zealand Police Area Commander for Counties Manukau West, Jason Hewett — how the relationship between sex workers and the police has changed under New Zealand’s decriminalised approach, responds to historical allegations of under age sex workers operating in South Auckland and to scare stories about sex trafficking in New Zealand.

At night, Hunter’s Plaza comprises a deserted series of car parks attached to a retail shopping park. In 2012 a small number of street-based sex workers were legally working on the east side of the Plaza on the Great South Road at Hunters Corner. Many of the workers were Māori (who are indigenous to New Zealand) and many were transgender women who experience high levels of discrimination. Hunters Corner borders closely on the residential areas of East Tamaki Road, Charles Street, and Hoteo Avenue. The clashes came from residents who objected to the presence of workers on the corner, although not all who objected were residents. Tension had been present since 2009 when violent community vigilante attacks were televised as residents attempted to forcibly drive out workers and their clients.

In 2012, the resident’s group went on to lobby Manukau City Council, who supported the residents and sought to have legislation introduced that would allow the council to enact a bylaw that would restrict the areas where workers could work from; effectively re-criminalising street prostitution. The Prostitution Reform (Control of Street Prostitution) Amendment Bill they sent to parliament was a direct challenge to New Zealand’s 2003 decriminalised prostitution framework.

Hewett was caught in the middle, trying to support the workers’ legal rights whilst at the same time responding to the resident’s concerns. He had some sympathy for the workers and also realised that bylaws enforcing restrictions on specific areas would only see workers move to new areas.

The Amendment Bill failed and instead a negotiated approach that worked for both workers and residents was adopted. Hewett and the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective worked with the council to improve amenities and security for the workers in areas away from the resident’s properties. Street lighting and security cameras made workers feel safer working in these areas and now Hunters Corner is as deserted at night as most New Zealand suburbs.

Policing and Sex Work

Few police officers globally have experience of working under a decriminalised framework in the context of sex work. Prior to decriminalisation, the relationship between the police and sex workers had a deeply fraught history in New Zealand. Undercover cops would pretend to be clients to entrap and arrest sex workers, using condoms for evidence, and would regularly arrest street-based workers. If you were Māori or Pasifika — and particularly if you were trans — that frequently singled you out for violent treatment according to those working at that time. Globally this mirrors the experiences of sex workers where sex work is criminalised.

In the United States, sex workers in New York City have reported incidents of violence including an incident of rape by police officers. Cops have been charged with having sex with a teenage sex worker in California and in Alaska the police have had sexual contact during vice stings as this is technically legal — although many workers regard this as rape.

In the UK, sex workers continue to be arrested for brothel keeping offences and when they approach the police to report violent crime have then been threatened with prosecution and deportation. The 2009 report Arrest the Violence conducted in 11 Countries in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia found,

“Police rape, beat and otherwise abuse sex workers with impunity”

In countries where law criminalises sex workers’ clients the police also continue to have a troubling relationship with sex workers. In Norway, sex workers working together for safety continue to be charged with brothel keeping and the police have been responsible for the forced eviction of sex workers from workplaces and homes. Even when sex workers in Norway have reported violent crime or rape to the police they have been evicted or forcibly deported. As a result, few sex workers in Norway report crimes against them to the police according to Amnesty International’s 2016 report.

In Australia during the 1990’s, the Wood Royal Commission’s inquiry into police corruption and the ties between cops and illegal brothels in New South Wales was one motivating factor for the adoption of decriminalisation of prostitution.

Hewett acknowledges that prior to decriminalisation in New Zealand the police had a poor relationship with sex workers. Since decriminalisation, however, the relationship between sex workers and police has changed dramatically, exemplified in some ways by Hewett who said that in New Zealand,

“Sex workers feel a lot safer and more willing to come and report to us, for example if they have been assaulted or in some cases if they haven’t been paid by a client.”

Sex workers also say that police attitudes to them have changed for the better according to the Prostitution Law Review Committee report conducted after the reform act decriminalised their work.

The 2003 Reform Act does, however, continue to criminalise migrant sex workers. According to Hewett, when migrant workers are reported to the police it’s often under the assumption that a worker may have been illegally trafficked. The New Zealand police treat any allegation of trafficking seriously. Hewett acknowledges that under the current law there is a risk of sex trafficking as people try to work around the law, but said “The problem we have in New Zealand is that the Prostitution Reform Act precludes migrant workers from working in the sex industry. So what they are doing is working in breach of their visa, they are in breach of immigration law and they are therefore less likely to talk to us or allegations of trafficking can occur because of the circumstances.” Hewett went on to say,

“What we have found with allegations in the past [is that] upon speaking to the sex workers they are in possession of their passport, they are in possession of large amount of cash and they have big smiles on their faces and they assure us that they are not being illegally trafficked.”

There have been convictions for human trafficking in New Zealand for labour exploitation of migrant workers in the agricultural industry, and Hewett went on to say, “Where allegations of human sex trafficking exist, much like with child exploitation, they are treated very seriously and investigated thoroughly with appropriate rigour and every time those investigations have taken place the allegations have proved to be unfounded or there was no evidence to support a prosecution.”

Although Hewett now works outside of the police force, New Zealand Police revisited the issue of outdoor sex workers’ right to work, this time in Christchurch earlier this year. Residents again clashed with sex workers when street-based workers were displaced from their traditional areas by the Christchurch earthquake. The police were again caught in the middle and initially supported moves by the council to introduce a bylaw to preclude workers from residential areas. However, as they and the council realised that all they were doing was forcing workers to shift to working in areas where they would be less safe they dropped support for the bylaw and concluded,

“We want residents to feel safe at home and in their neighbourhood streets, and we also want street-based sex workers to feel safe and part of the community. We are confident that by coming together as a community we will find a solution that is acceptable to all involved.”

In New Zealand, unlike many countries in the Western world, the inclusive belief that sex workers are a part of our community and deserving of rights like any other worker continues be taken seriously.

Celebrating the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective (NZPC) 30th anniversary in Wellington in 2017. Since 1987 NZPC have worked with sex workers providing them with health services and supporting their access to rights at work

Fraser Crichton is a Scottish documentary photographer and writer currently living in Wellington. He works on personal documentary projects in a variety of media including writing, photography and video. He is currently working a long term project exploring and supporting sex workers’ rights.

If you genuinely care about sex workers then donate to organisations run by and for them:

NZPC // National Ugly Mugs // SCOT-PEP // Sex Workers Outreach Project //SWOP Behind Bars // Basis Yorkshire // Durbar Mahila Samanway